Atlanta Picks EarthLink

The city of Atlanta, Georgia has picked hometown company EarthLink to build and run a citywide Wi-Fi network.

The deal is not final yet. “We have to get through contract negotiations and city council approval,” says Don Berryman, president of EarthLink’s Municipal Networks Division. “That’ll take a couple of months.” He expects deployment could start as early as May 2007.

The plans will probably be what we’ve come to expect from EarthLink: equipment from Tropos Networks for the mesh network that connects to clients and Motorola Canopy for wireless backhaul where needed. Upload and download speed will be 1 Mbps. The cost will be $17.95 a month, but the company will work with the city to identify areas where low-income residents should get discounts (known as “bridging the digital divide,” or for those who see the glass half full, “digital inclusion.”)

“Cities want these networks because they have a digital divide,” says Berryman. “Some people say there isn’t one, but there is. There are neighborhoods in every city we’ve seen that have no access to broadband. Even if they can afford it, they can’t get it, because the infrastructure doesn’t exist. We’ll provide high-speed access in those areas; some households with lower incomes will have a discount.” What the discount will be has to be negotiated with the city.

EarthLink will also keep the network open for wholesale use by other ISPs to sell access.

This announcement follows EarthLink’s deployment of networks in Anaheim and Milpitas, California and in New Orleans. The company is progressing with installation in Philadelphia, some areas of which are now live. EarthLink’s web site says Alexandria, Virginia and Pasadena, California are coming soon.

So far, the planned deployment in San Francisco remains mired in controversy, as the city supervisors have yet to commit to the network even after contract negotiations concluded successfully. Some very vocal public advocates there believe the city should own its municipal Wi-Fi and not leave it to a private company.

“We don’t see any problems with the timing in San Francisco,” says Berryman. He expects it will take three months for approval from the board of supervisors to come, and that deployment in the Bay Area will start in April, even before deployment in Atlanta.

One hold-up in Atlanta could be the rights for placing equipment on light poles. “It’s easier if the city owns them,” Berryman admits. “Atlanta could be a longer process, to get Georgia Power on board — we’ll need a separate agreement. They own most of the assets. They don’t have anyone using them for Wi-Fi now.”

This isn’t the first time Atlanta has made noise about citywide Wi-Fi. Biltmore Communications was supposed to be building “Atlanta FastPass” in 2004, but Berryman says it didn’t come to much more than some hotspots and city parks. Links from the Biltmore site regarding FastPass now go to Biltmore’s sister company PūrDigital, which claims to have the “largest Wi-Fi footprint in the City of Atlanta.” They list a number of locations. PūrDigital charges $10 a day or $30 a month.

A grassroots group called Atlanta FreeNet has also provided free, community-based Wi-Fi connections in the city since 2003.

Atlanta became EarthLink’s home in 2000 when the company merged with ISP MindSpring. That name is now used by EarthLink for its free voice over IP (VoIP) service (formerly Vling), which is similar to Skype.

“This is a great, growing city, and it has special needs with low-income areas — it is everything we’ve been successful with in other cities,” Berryman says. “We’re excited about doing our hometown.” EarthLink also has major offices in Pasadena and San Francisco.

Tropos announced this morning that analysts at Novarum, testing the useful speed and availability of muni-Fi networks around the country, found four out of the top five were using Tropos equipment. Two of them, Anaheim and Philadelphia, are owned and run by EarthLink. Others were in St. Cloud, Florida and Mountain View, California. Rounding out the top five was the network in Toronto run by Toronto Hydro using equipment from BelAir Networks— that one rated the highest for overall performance.

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